Joe Clarke 1933-2003

September 23, 2003|HERB BROCK

Joe Clarke's life was played out on a big stage and a small platform. His legacy can be measured in milestones and minor events. His love in both cases was public service.

The big stage was in Frankfort, where he was known as Rep. P. Joseph Clarke, Appropriations and Revenue chairman Clarke and Speaker of the House Clarke. It was there where the legislature's "budget genius" drew headlines for pursuing such noble and grand causes as budget reform, education reform, health care reform and legislative independence.

The small platform was in Danville, where he was known just as "Joe" or, in deference to his father, "Little Joe." It was here where the hometown boy drew quiet appreciation for pursuing such homespun activities as cooking sauce for an annual Boyle Scout dinner, making snow sculptures, serving as lay reader for his church and on the boards of numerous local civic organizations and charities as well as representing clients in his legal practice.


Clarke's death on Sunday at the age of 70 has prompted an outpouring of tributes from people who witnessed him wearing both his hero's halo in Frankfort and his hometown hat in Danville - people like longtime legislative colleague Mike Moloney of Lexington and longtime local friend Guy Richardson of Danville.

Moloney, an attorney, served as A and R chairman in the Senate during most of Clarke's more than two decades as A and R chair in the House. It's easy for Moloney to list what he considers to be some of his old friend's legislative accomplishments.

"Joe was one of the leaders of the movement for legislative reform in the General Assembly, and this dates back to when he first came in 1970," said Moloney. "Kentucky had one of the most powerful governorships in the nation and our governors pretty much dictated the legislative agenda and the budget."

Clarke once told The Advocate the story of how the seeming dictatorship would work.

"When (House members) would go to their desks at the beginning of each session, there would be list on the desk instructing us on how we were to vote on each piece of legislation," said Clarke, who soon would be leading the movement to wad up the governor's lists and work on gaining more input into legislation.

He was rewarded for his budgetary expertise

As the legislature started gaining more overall power over legislation, it gained more say about the body's most important bill - the state budget. Clarke, who was rewarded for his budgetary expertise as well as feisty independence by being named A and R chairman by House leadership after only two years in the legislature, soon gained the reputation as the budget expert of the General Assembly.

"Everyone turned to Joe for his analysis of the budget proposed by the governor - legislators, the media, even the governor's office," said Moloney.

In the 1980s, when revenue shortfalls caused serious budget-making problems, Moloney shared the spotlight with Clarke as the two, often appearing at press conferences together, became known as the "doom and gloom boys" for their blunt fiscal evaluations.

"We were paired together by the media but we were not equals," Moloney said. "He was the teacher, and I was the student. And everybody else was in the same classroom with me."

Speaking of teaching, Moloney noted that he and Clarke played key roles in the development of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.

"The goal was to make sure that (Gov. Wallace Wilkinson) provided sufficient funding for meaningful programs that would really represent reform," Moloney said. Clarke pushed hard for the budget for KERA and was one of the biggest advocates of it after it was enacted, cautioning patience among teachers, administrators and the public, he said.

The event that represented the esteem with which Clarke was held more than any other, Moloney said, was not the enactment of a budget or education reform bill but Clarke's election to speaker of the House.

"The legislature had just been rocked by the BOPTROT scandal (which resulted in the indictment of the then-Speaker Don Blandford, along with several other members) and House members turned to the man with the most impeccable reputation for honesty and integrity, Joe Clarke."

Bunny Davis, the late Danville City Commissioner who had served for many years as doorkeeper of the House, witnessed Clarke's election as speaker in 1993 and had this to say. "Joe was squeaky clean and that's just the kind of man the House needed," he said.

But cleanliness is not always next to Godliness, especially when the religion is politics. Clarke found that out as speaker. He oversaw the passage of a tough ethic reform law in 1993 but was unable to control a contentious debate and serious divisions over health care reform legislation in 1994.

"As speaker, you have to do a lot of political things. Joe wasn't a great politician, that way," said Moloney.

Central Kentucky News Articles